How Is Magnetism A Form Of Energy?

Magnetism is a force that arises from moving electric charges.

Magnetism and magnetic fields are used to produce, transmit, and store energy in many ways. The most familiar example is the use of magnets to generate electricity in power plant generators.

Key terms:

  • Magnetism – The force exerted by magnets when they attract or repel each other.
  • Magnetic field – The region around a magnetic material where magnetic force is exerted.
  • Magnetic energy – The potential energy stored in a magnetic field.
  • Electromagnet – A magnet whose magnetic field is produced by an electric current.

This introduction briefly covers magnetism as a force that interacts with magnetic fields and can store energy. It also defines some key terms related to magnetism and magnetic energy.

Magnetism as a Force

Magnetism is a force that arises due to the motion of electric charges. Every electron in an atom spins on its axis and orbits the nucleus, thus creating a magnetic field. The spinning motion of electrons generates a net magnetic dipole moment along the axis of spin. The orbital motion of electrons around the nucleus also contributes to the magnetic moment. These atomic dipoles align in magnetic materials to produce net magnetization. Magnetism manifests as a force field that exerts an influence on other nearby magnets, magnetic materials, and moving charges. This invisible field permeates the space surrounding a magnet and can create attraction, repulsion, or torques on other magnets placed inside it. The field flows invisibly from North to South pole outside the magnet and acts as a non-contact force that can do work at a distance. Just like gravitational potential energy results from height in a gravity field, magnetic potential energy results from the orientation of dipoles in a magnetic field. Work can be done to flip dipoles against the external magnetic field or align them with it. The energy stored this way is referred to as magnetic potential energy.

Magnetic Fields

A magnetic field is a region surrounding a magnet where magnetic force is exerted. This invisible field extends outwards from the magnet and can be visualized by observing the effect on other magnets or magnetic materials placed in the field.

Magnetic fields are created by the motion of electrical charges, such as electrons moving around atomic nuclei and spinning on their axes. The magnetic field exerts a force on other nearby moving electrical charges. The amount of force depends on the strength of the magnetic field, the amount of charge, and the speed at which the charges are moving.

For example, when you hold two magnets near each other, their magnetic fields interact. The north pole of one magnet will be attracted to the south pole of the other magnet. However, the same poles will repel each other – two north poles or two south poles will push away when brought together. This demonstrates the force exerted by their magnetic fields.

Another example is a magnetic compass. The Earth itself generates a magnetic field that extends into space. The needle in a compass is a small magnet that aligns itself with the Earth’s field, pointing north and south, allowing one to determine their orientation on the planet.

In summary, magnetic fields are invisible forces surrounding magnets that can exert pushes and pulls on other magnetizable objects. Understanding magnetic fields helps explain the behavior of permanent magnets as well as electromagnets used in motors, relays, and many other applications.

Magnetic Energy to Mechanical Energy

One of the most useful applications of magnetism is its ability to produce mechanical motion and power. This occurs in motors and generators which convert magnetic energy into rotational kinetic energy.

In electric motors, electric current is passed through a coil of wire surrounded by permanent magnets. This generates a magnetic field around the coil that pushes against the field of the permanent magnets, causing the coil to spin. As the coil spins, it turns an axle that can be used to power machinery and devices.

Generators work in reverse – as the coil is spun mechanically, its motion through the magnetic field induces a current in the wire. This electrical energy output can then be used to power electrical devices. In this way generators convert mechanical rotational energy into electrical energy.

The interplay between magnetic fields and coils allows energy to be interchanged between magnetic and mechanical forms. This is how the latent energy stored in magnetic fields can be harnessed to produce usable mechanical power. Motors and generators enable this energy conversion that is central to many electrical and transportation technologies we use today.

Producing Magnetism

Magnetism is produced by the motion of electric charges. When electric charges such as electrons move, they generate magnetic fields. This phenomenon is described by Ampere’s law which states that a moving charge produces a magnetic field. The faster the charges move, the stronger the magnetic field they produce.

illustration of electromagnetism and magnetic field lines

Magnetism can also be generated through electromagnetic induction. Electromagnetic induction occurs when a conductor moves through an existing magnetic field. This motion causes electrons in the conductor to move, generating their own magnetic field. Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction quantifies this process. The changing magnetic flux through the conductor, caused by its motion, induces a voltage or electromotive force which drives the electrons to move and produce magnetism.

Electromagnetic induction is utilized in many electrical generators. For example, in a wind turbine, the rotational motion of the turbine blades spinning in the wind induces a voltage in stationary wire coils. This drives electrons to flow and generate a magnetic field, producing electricity. Similar principles are employed in hydroelectric and fossil fuel power plants to convert kinetic energy into electrical energy.

So in summary, magnetism arises from moving electric charges, and can be produced through electromagnetic induction by moving conductors in magnetic fields. This allows the generation of usable magnetic and electrical energy from mechanical motion.

Storing Magnetic Energy

Certain materials like iron and nickel have the ability to store magnetic energy in a phenomenon known as ferromagnetism. In ferromagnetic materials, the magnetic moments of the atoms align in the same direction and reinforce each other, creating strong magnetic fields within the material. This alignment allows the material to act like a magnet itself and retain magnetic energy even when an external magnetic field is removed.

The electrons in ferromagnetic materials contain orbital angular momentum and spin angular momentum which contribute to their magnetic moment. When they align, these tiny magnetic fields combine to create the larger-scale magnetic behavior of the material. The strength of the magnetic field within a ferromagnetic material depends on the degree of alignment of the atomic dipoles, which can be altered by temperature, stress, or magnetic fields.

Ferromagnetic materials are commonly used to create permanent magnets, electromagnets, and for cores in transformers and motors. The ability to retain magnetic energy allows these materials to act as a reservoir or storage for magnetic fields. This stored energy can then be harnessed to create motion or electric current.

Applications of Magnetic Energy

Magnetic energy has many practical applications in our modern world. Here are some examples:

  • MRI machines use powerful magnets to align the protons in our bodies. Radio waves are then used to alter and detect these magnetic fields, creating detailed images.

  • Maglev trains use magnets to levitate and propel the train at high speeds, with very little friction. This is much more efficient than using wheels on tracks.

  • Electric generators rely on magnets and magnetic induction to transform kinetic energy into electrical energy.

  • Hard drives store data on spinning disks that are magnetically coated. A read/write head alters the magnetic orientations to write data.

  • Speakers use magnetic coils and permanent magnets to convert electrical signals into motion and sound vibrations.

  • Compasses have a small magnetic needle that aligns itself to Earth’s magnetic field lines to show direction.

As you can see, magnetic energy is vital for many modern technologies we use regularly. Understanding magnetism has enabled great advancements in transportation, data storage, power generation, medical imaging, and more.

Relationship to Electricity

Magnetism and electricity are closely intertwined, to the point that physicists often refer to them together as electromagnetism. The link between magnetism and electricity was definitively established in the early 19th century by Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère. Ørsted showed that an electric current passing through a wire generates a magnetic field around it. Ampère then showed that loops of electric current act as magnets and that magnets can induce loops of electric current.

This interplay between electricity and magnetism forms the basis for electromagnets, electric motors, generators and transformers. In an electromagnet, running an electric current through a coil of wire wrapped around an iron core creates a magnetic field which magnetizes the core. Electric motors operate on the reverse principle, where passing a current through a wire loop within a magnetic field creates a torque that rotates the motor. Generators convert motion into electric current using the same principle in reverse. Finally, transformers consist of two coils linked by a magnetic field which can increase or decrease voltage depending on the ratio of windings.

On a deeper level, electromagnetic waves like light are the result of oscillating electric and magnetic fields propagating together. Their interaction is fundamental to all light and electromagnetic radiation. The relationship between electricity and magnetism is so foundational to physics that our deepest theories of the universe rely on it through quantum electrodynamics and electromagnetic fields.

Quantum Mechanical Explanation

At the most fundamental level, magnetism arises from the quantum mechanical properties of electrons. Electrons have an intrinsic magnetic moment and spin. Electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus create a small magnetic field, with the direction of the field depending on the electron’s spin. In most materials, the magnetic fields from individual electrons cancel each other out. However, in some materials like iron, nickel and cobalt, the electron orbits align in a way that their magnetic fields reinforce each other, leading to a net magnetic field for the material as a whole. This alignment of electron spins and orbits is what produces ferromagnetism.

The full quantum mechanical origin of magnetism involves complex interactions between electron spins, orbits and couplings. However, the key takeaway is that magnetic properties ultimately stem from the quantum nature of electrons and their intrinsic magnetic moments. So at a foundational level, magnetism can be seen as a manifestation of quantum mechanics at the atomic and subatomic scale.


In conclusion, magnetism is a clear manifestation of energy in several key ways. First, the magnetic force is transmitted through magnetic fields, which contain magnetic potential energy. This magnetic potential can be converted into kinetic energy, as seen with electric motors. The process of creating magnets also requires external energy, whether from electric currents or pre-existing magnetic fields. The magnetic energy in permanent magnets can be harnessed and stored for later use, such as in electric guitar pickups. Magnetism is intrinsically linked to electricity, and both have origins in the quantum mechanical properties of electrons and protons. Overall, the fact that magnetism enables useful work, can be stored, and arises from deeper quantum effects, demonstrates that it is a fundamental form of energy in our universe.

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